British Biotech in Crisis
"In the last two years, we haven't been able to do a field trial in the UK because activists come and dig them up." - Dave Lawrence, Syngenta's head of research and technology
The industry's viewpoint on the meltdown in the UK.
British Biotech in Crisis
AgBiotech Reporter, http://www.bioreporter.com, November 2003
Biotechnology in Great Britain, both in research and in agriculture, is facing a crisis. The country no longer has field trials, since the government insists on revealing the location of field trials to the activists who routinely destroy them. Its top scientists [read genetic engineers] are leaving for greener pastures, seeing their efforts publicly denounced even as investment in research dwindles. Its largest agricultural cooperative has promised never to plant GM crops or sell food made from them through its retail arm, continuing a theme that has for years disrupted transatlantic trade. Activists have pledged in advance to attack the fields of any British farmer using GM seed, recalling that no jury has ever convicted any one of them on criminal charges stemming from prior attacks.
And in the wake of findings from Britain's farm-scale field trials, the world's largest, most concerted evaluation of the environmental impact of GM crops, activists and the world press have concluded that British scientists succeeded in proving that herbicide-tolerant GM crops do not yield sufficient quantities of weeds, weed seeds and bugs. That is, with the possible exception of herbicide-tolerant maize, which during tests yielded more weeds, weed seeds and bugs than competing technology - a crucial measure of what many call 'biodiversity.'
Field trials in Britain ended with Bayer's decision to halt the last there were. The company blamed Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett for its decision. Her insistence that the locations of all trial sites be made public had forced its hand, a spokesman said. For a while, Bayer CropScience believed it was close to a deal that would allow GM crop test sites to be kept secret. Instead of having to publish exact map references for fields, companies would only have to name the county in which it was holding a trial.
The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) had said this vaguer notification was 'acceptable in terms of risk assessment,' while the police have always complained that explicit disclosure of test site locations has been a major factor in aiding attacks on field trials. However, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) told Bayer it would not support this change in regulations.
"In the absence of any moves to ensure the security for trials, Bayer CropScience has no choice, therefore, but to cease its variety trial activities in the UK for this coming season," said an official with Bayer. It is disappointing the criminal activities of a small minority of people have prevented information on GM crop varieties being generated. Bayer said it hoped to resume field trials when conditions were more favorable.
When conditions become more favorable remains to be seen, but British scientists aren't waiting. At least seven of the country's top GM crop scientists have recently moved abroad to work and two more are due to leave in the next few months.
Mark Tester, a senior lecturer in plant genomics at Cambridge University, has decided to quit Britain [hurrah!] for Australia later this year. "Most of the industry has left already because of the bad atmosphere here", he said. Tester decided to leave after the industrial funding he had won to expand his research group in the UK vanished. Wayne Powell, the deputy director of the Scottish crop research institute and one of Britain's most acclaimed crop scientists, has also decided to emigrate to Australia in the next few months.
Many have left the internationally renowned plant research laboratory, the John Innes Center in Norwich. They include: Derek Lydiate, a senior scientist who now runs a lab in Canada; the center's ex-director, Richard Flavell [he actually left about five years ago!], who has joined Ceres, a crop research company in California, and George Coupland, who has left to join the Max Planck Research Institute for plant breeding research in Germany.
Others to leave include Alastair Robertson, the former director for the institute for food research in Norwich, Simon Santa Cruz, at the DEFRA-funded plant research laboratory Horticulture Research International, who has set up a crop biotechnology company in Spain; Peter Day, the former director of Plant Breeding International, who has joined Rutgers University in New Jersey, and Wolfgang Schuh, who has left Zeneca for a university job in Canada. Having left Royal Holloway University in London in 1988, Richard Dixon is now the director of plant biology at the Noble Foundation in Oklahoma.
Michael Wilson, the chief executive of Horticulture Research International [wish he would go!], warns that the looming crisis would have serious consequences for Britain's reputation for scientific research. "The way it is going, Britain is lining itself up to become an intellectual and technological backwater", he said. [since when did a few less egentic engineers equal an 'intellectual backwater'? a few less scientists with a corporate herd mentality has tobe a positive bonus]
This exodus only confirms a trend; the past 20 years have seen the number of crop scientists employed by major companies in Britain decline by more than 60 percent, with the majority of that decrease occurring after 1999. At least four big companies have closed their crop research facilities in Britain in the past three years.
The only major multinational crop research center left in the UK is Jealott's Hill, owned by Syngenta. "In the last two years, we haven't been able to do a field trial in the UK because activists come and dig them up, " said Dave Lawrence, Syngenta's head of research and technology.
A representative of the organic foods industry was not sympathetic to their plight. "It was the exaggerated claims of biotech companies that lured a lot of scientists into this research", said Gundula Azeez, a spokesperson for the Soil Association. "It is a good thing that the scientists are now starting to catch up with reality."
The notion that efforts to develop biotechnology in Britain were wasted was echoed by Britain's Co-op supermarket group, which said it will reject any government proposal that paved the way for commercial plantings of GM crops. The food retailer, which is also Britain's largest 'farmer' with 34,400 hectares (85,000 acres) of land, said an independent survey of its customers and members had found that 55 percent were against GM, while a further 38 percent said they were yet to be convinced of its benefits. Co-op also said 78 percent of those surveyed said they had yet to be convinced that the commercial growing of GM crops should be allowed in Britain.
As a result, Co-op said it had decided against growing GM crops on its own land or selling GM food under its own brand. It also wields financial muscle; the Co-op group, which sells around US$8.37 billion worth of food annually through 1,800 convenience stores, also owns the Co-operative Bank, which will now refuse to lend any money to any biotechnology-related effort.
Such a concerted effort to block the use of biotechnology in food production has its counter-part among British activists, who have signed a pledge to attack GM crops if the government permits them to be grown commercially. A new group calling itself 'Greengloves' says it is hoping to get ten thousand people to sign the pledge. The group already includes several people who have been acquitted in the courts for damaging field trials as well as activists from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. "The idea is to let people register their intentions in advance of a decision being made", said a spokesman.
The Agriculture Biotechnology Council (ABC), which represents the biotech industry, doesn't anticipate such a decision any time soon but sees a ray of hope. "When are we going to see a commercial GM crop cultivated in Britain? It's a long time away. Some of the heat may have dissipated by then", said an ABC spokesman. This contrasts with the intransigence of the Greengloves pledge: "If the UK government gives the go-ahead to commercialize the growing of GM crops against the overwhelming wishes of the British public, I pledge to non-violently remove GM crops from the ground or support those who take action to remove GM crops."
Little could have underscored the crisis in British biotechnology more than the public relations debacle that ensued from the results of Britain's program of farm-scale field trials of GM crops. According to the Royal Society, which released the results of years of exhaustive investigation, the trials revealed 'significant differences in the effect on biodiversity when managing genetically modified herbicide-tolerant (GMHT) crops as compared to conventional varieties.'
About 60 fields each were planted to beet, maize and spring oilseed rape. Each field was split, one half being planted to a conventional variety managed according to the farmer's normal practice, the other half being sown with a GMHT variety, with weeds controlled by glufosinate-ammonium in maize and spring oilseed rape, and glyphosate in beet. Comparisons in biodiversity were made by looking at the levels of weeds and invertebrates, such as beetles, butterflies and bees, in both the fields and the field margins immediately surrounding them.
In GMHT beet and oilseed rape crops more effective weed control led to a decline of the number of weed seeds left in the soil at the end of each growing season. Although this has been going on in cropped fields in Britain for many decades, researchers said it could be accelerated by the management associated with these particular crops. In contrast, GMHT maize showed the opposite effect. Typically, conventional maize has lower weed burdens because of the widespread use of persistent herbicides; the herbicide regimes used on the GMHT maize were not as effective at controlling the weeds.
In beet and oilseed rape, the densities of weeds shortly after planting were higher in the GMHT treatment. This effect was reversed after the first application of broad-spectrum herbicide in the GMHT treatments. By the end of the season, the weight of weeds collected from a fixed area and number of weed seeds falling to the soil among these GMHT crops were between one-third and one-sixth those of conventional treatments.
Twelve of the most common weed species in the UK were examined. The biomass of six species in beet, eight in maize and five in oilseed rape were significantly affected. Generally, weed biomass was lower in GMHT beet and oilseed rape and higher in GMHT maize. For many species in beet and oilseed rape (19 out of 24 cases), weed seed densities were lower after GMHT cropping. According to the researchers, these differences, if compounded over time, could result in large decreases in population densities of what they called arable weeds. Where the weeds were less abundant, there were fewer insect herbivores, pollinators and insects which prey on the herbivores.
Comparison of the amounts of herbicide applied with the density of weeds showed that farmers applied more herbicide when the density increased in beet and maize. Generally GMHT crops were found to receive less herbicide, later in the season, than the conventional crops.
"The results of these farm scale evaluations reveal significant differences in the effect on biodiversity when managing genetically herbicide-tolerant (GMHT) crops as compared to conventional varieties," said Les Firbank, coordinator of the project that submitted the papers on the trials "The study emphasizes the importance of the weeds growing among crop plants in sustaining natural communities within, and adjacent to, farmer's fields". (emphasis added)
Amid all of this, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair says that governmental decisions about agricultural biotechnology will be based on science. "We will act according to the scientific evidence and I think the system that we have set up is one that is robust because it is one that is allowing us to get proper scientific evidence," he said. "For some GM crops there are problems to do with biodiversity, for others they say there are fewer such problems. I know there is a huge campaign against GM and all the rest of it and to be frank about it the government has got no interest in this one way or another, other than to do the right thing."
Compiled from reports by Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences (journal of Britain's Royal Society), The Guardian (UK), The Observer (UK), The Press Association and Reuters.
Editor's note: Now that Tony Blair has conceded that 'doing the right thing' includes protecting biodiversity (i.e., protecting the proliferation of weeds and bugs among food crops), the role he foresees science playing in decisions made by Britain's government will be marginal at best.